By Johan Bostrom, IDG News Service
June 14, 2005 | The lack of products on the market is a common complaint about pioneering biotech companies, but Sausalito, California-based Genetic Savings & Clone has sold five carbon-based products that purr when you stroke them. And according to CEO Lou Hawthorne, the next offering will bark.
|CAT TIMES 2: Hawthorne holds |
Tabouli and Baba Ganoush,
produced using chromatin
Photo by Victor Fischer/Polaris
“Cloning a dog will, hopefully, be our biggest breakthrough in 2005,” says Hawthorne, who admits he had hoped to have a dog cloned last year. “We’re making embryos every week and transferring them when we have surrogates.”
Hawthorne has partnered with billionaire John Sperlingham, who invested $15 million. An IPO is a possibility if and when dog cloning is added to the company’s services.
The company is highly controversial because of its application of cloning technology for the consumer market. It is freezing biopsy tissue from “several hundred” cats and dogs to deliver clones (or “later-born twins,” as clones are sometimes described) of customers’ favorite pets.
“Most of the dogs in the gene bank are mixed breeds. Often the owner doesn’t know which breeds the dog derives from. Preserving and developing the genetics of a dog with a pedigree is easier and [more] dependable the traditional way,” vice president of communications Ben Carlson says.
To store an animal’s genetic material, a veterinarian takes skin and mouth samples. If the animal is dead, the biopsy is taken from whatever vital organic tissue is available. The frozen samples are then sent to the Genetic Savings lab in Wisconsin. Customers pay between $295 and $1,395 for a deposit and $100 to $150 annually for storage. The cost for a successful cat cloning is $32,000, but the price for a dog could be much higher. “Until we do it a few times, we don’t know our cost of production,” Hawthorne says.
Of course, no clone will have the precise personality or shared memories of its deceased predecessor. “We do not provide eternal life or resurrection,” Carlson says, alluding to misconceptions fueled by current and former competitors in the pet-cloning industry such as Los Angeles-based PerPETuate and the now-defunct Lazaron BioTechnologies, which took its name from the biblical story of Lazarus.
But Genetic Savings & Clone does note the desire for eternal life in the information it provides to veterinarians about approaching clients who are grieving their dead pets. “Even if [customers] later choose not to clone, for some clients gene banking provides peace of mind,” the company’s Web site states.
The company created headlines with its first cat clone, CC, back in 2001. Media attention scared off partner scientists at Texas A&M University (although researchers there involved in the horse cloning in April 2005 still act as consultants). Today, Genetic Savings solely owns and manages its Wisconsin cloning facilities.
CC was produced using the nuclear transfer method (as used for Dolly the sheep) at Texas A&M, but the Wisconsin lab now uses the chromatin transfer method, pretreating the animal cells to remove molecules associated with cell differentiation, for its other cloned cats.
The company is also adopting ovum and embryo assessment technologies to pull cells from cloned canine embryos at the optimal developmental point for them to be viable. Hawthorne says, “They’ll produce embryos of even higher quality; they will also increase our efficiency because we won’t be transferring nonviable embryos into surrogates. That’ll be good both ethically and for our business.”
Being the sole survivor in the business of pet cloning has put Genetic Savings in the line of fire from anti-pet-cloning organizations and media. The company deflects the criticism, offering online discussion forums on ethics, movie references to The Sixth Day and Multiplicity, and presents its own Code of Bioethics.
Hawthorne accepts some of the early criticisms. Now, he says, “We listen to our critics and change both our policy and our message,” citing as an example the use of surrogate mothers as ovum donors. “We’re in the process of switching over entirely to in vitro ova this year.” These ova are bought from spay clinics, where they are usually discarded.
The company’s existence in Sausalito came under scrutiny earlier this year, when a bill (AB1428) calling for a ban on the commercial sale and transfer of cloned pets in California was defeated. Critics charge pet cloning as a needless scientific incursion in a world where millions of animals are euthanized each year, and the bill will probably be resubmitted next year.
Genetic Savings & Clone says that commercial cloning of a third species will be presented this year. Hawthorne is tight-lipped: “It’s in some cases used as a pet — that’s all I can say.”